I try to exercise at least 5 times a week - like really exercise, work up a good sweat, get into my body and out of my head. For me, it’s either yoga or running. I like the minimalism of both. I can bring my running shoes anywhere - and often do as I travel - and can head out at a moment’s notice without having to coordinate with a partner or find an intramural team.
My kids know I exercise because it makes me feel happy and strong, but they often don’t actually see me exercise. I’m usually out of the house for a yoga class long before they wake up, or heading out on a run while they make breakfast or lounge around the house. While living in Minnesota has many perks, it also has the downside of a long and at times very cold winter. Due to this, occasionally I am forced to get on the “dreadmill” - the extremely old, rickety treadmill that lives in my basement and is used approximately 3 times a year on the coldest days that I miss 6 AM yoga and don’t have any other time to myself. My kids can build or do puzzles while I get in a quick run. It was on one of these few days that my five year old said, “Mom, you have to do your run so that you can get your energy out, right?” It was a good observation from a little guy, and my first thought was, not surprisingly, the relationship to exercise from a Chinese Medicine perspective: I need to get my Qi moving, whereas when I let my kids run around wild, they need to move the excessive amount of Qi that is building up in their little bodies.
While, if I’m being completely honest, I started to exercise regularly for weight management purposes, that’s not the motivation that keeps me going day after day. Here are three reasons to exercise, and why they make sense according to Chinese Medicine:
- Relieve stagnation. Stagnation is a powerful concept in Chinese Medicine, and I think the best comparison I’ve heard is how we feel when we’re in traffic. Is there anything more draining than sitting in a traffic jam? Or how about that feeling when you’ve been stuck on a plane for several hours… you just need to move! There’s a physiological response - your back starts to ache, your legs might get restless, your mind starts to get anxious. Our bodies were meant to move, and because we can’t move, we feel trapped. Stagnation manifests itself in heat. When we are finally able to move, that stagnation is released in the form of heat - we literally feel cooler. So much of our lives are spent sitting - sitting in cars, sitting at desks, sitting in meetings. We’re starting to realize the impact that all of this sitting is having on our bodies, and though I try to be mindful about how much sitting I do, exercise is one way that I can counteract all of that physical stagnation. I can usually miss a day of sweat, but after two days of no exercise, all of that heat starts to build up in my body and I get especially edgy to be around.
- Replenish Qi. In Chinese Medicine, the Qi is the Energy, or in yoga we refer to it as the “Prana.” Giving too much of our Qi to our busy lives without taking the time to replace it causes Qi deficiency. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, including anxiousness, sleeplessness, frequent headaches, high tension in the neck and shoulders, irritability, and even frequent hiccups. Many of us experience Qi deficiency - myself included. I’ve started to slowly step away from long distance running and am now practicing exercise that is less depleting and more focused on replenishing the Qi. I find myself craving a nourishing yoga class much more often than a 10 mile run, and those 10 miles run that used to bring my mind clarity and focus now just make me feel tired. Slow, mindful, low impact movements and a focus on breath and posture helps to replenish the Qi - meanwhile offering many practices that I can bring into my everyday life with work and family.
- Treating the mind, body, & spirit as one. Applying the basic practices we use in exercise can have a profound impact in our daily work and family lives. Breathing through challenges, challenging our bodies, practicing mind over matter - the parallels to everyday life are endless. For me, it feels far less overwhelming to really dive into those practices for 30-60 minutes a day where I am mindfully focusing on breath and challenging my body and my mind. When things start to feel overwhelming the other 23 hours a day, I can mindfully return to my practice and instantly feel more capable.
While my physical health is important and I want to live a long life, and be able to play with my kids and someday my grand-kids, that all feels less tangible than the short term mental health benefits that I experience when I exercise regularly. Those shorter term benefits help get me out of bed in the morning. My meetings go better; I’m able to more easily roll with the punches throughout the day; my brain feels clearer, and my body feels less anxious. It’s not enough for me to just exercise to achieve good sleep - for that I need the added balance of herbs and acupuncture - but it’s a delicate balance for sure that continues to evolve as my body changes with age.
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